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Engaging with the backlash towards gender equity initiatives – insights from a male D&I practitioner

Do I really want to talk about backlash?

I was slightly apprehensive when asked to be recently interviewed about male backlash. It’s an issue that has been on the minds of diversity and inclusion researchers and practitioners for some time. Being familiar with some of the research and writings of Flood, Pease, Russell, Fox and Haussegger, et al., male backlash and its cousin, diversity fatigue, are entrenched and hard-wired behaviours.

The recent report, “Backlash & Buy-In”, by the Male Champions of Change consortium and Chief Executive Women, signed by over 150 male CEOs, suggests that male backlash is due to a lack of understanding of the business case for gender diversity, change fatigue, industry norms, cultural norms and fear.

I think there may be more to this.

As a D&I practitioner who has been working in gender equity since the late 90s, including developing gender equity strategies for organisations, managing discrimination and sexual harassment complaints, conducting numerous pay equity analyses, and preparing ten successful applications for the Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s (WGEA) Employer of Choice Citation, I’m going to explore some of the reasons for male backlash from a male D&I practitioner’s lens. I will also give some practical tips for individuals and organisations to enter the conversation safely and disrupt and dismantle backlash.

What is male backlash?

I have always come across some form of resistance to diversity, inclusion and equity work. The overt form of resistance includes the predictable and hostile commentary on social media, usually after articles like these, and usually outside of D&I circles. I’m more used to the passive kind of backlash, either the one that shows up in anonymous culture surveys, for example,

“Men have been actively overlooked for advancement in the name of advancing gender equity within the organisation.”

But passive resistance also takes the form of a lack of effort by organisations to fast track gender equity initiatives in organisations, usually by resourcing it as you would a medical research team that was curing something that was thought to be impossible to cure. For anyone who has read qualitative comments in culture surveys, we can become immune to legitimate ‘issues’ being raised like a broken record. Structural or systemic issues still prevail. And when aspirational statements don’t match the effort or outcomes, then we see comments such as,

“Family friendly and flexible work arrangements are generally words that are used, but don’t actually mean much.“

….which then leads to cynicism….

“Laughable that this Organisation gets awards as a gender equity employer, tells you how bad things are…”

The ever-changing resistive narrative

Over time, the resistive narrative has changed from, “We don’t discriminate around here”, “’We had 1000 men and no women apply for the role”, “We’re all about merit based selection”, “We can’t find the right women for the role”, “We can’t find the women”, to, “I’m sick of looking around me and all I see are blokes”, “It’s all about being flexible’, to some admission and greater comfort in men examining their own privilege. This is where the narrative gets tricky, because, does publicly stating that you are a man of privilege remind women that you are on top?

I don’t want to be critical about this progressive narrative, because if you asked me about gender equity in my twenties, I would have given you a blank stare, so how can I expect others to be on board, if they haven’t explored the issue more deeply? Even though, I can still recall clear moments of my professional single migrant mother battling all kinds of structural gender inequities, from trying to get a bank card or loan, to buying a used car and not being taken seriously. I was still gender blind.

However, something has changed over the last few years. When the conversation shifted from ‘fixing’ women to ‘enabling’ women (thanks to Fox, et al), when many women found their voice in the #MeToo campaign, and when representative targets started to make it into gender equity action plans, the resistance from some men became louder and aggressive.

As organisations become more vocal about their support for gender equity, there has been increasing level of backlash by men, and we need to continue to develop and challenge these narratives.

What is the nature of the recent backlash towards gender equity initiatives?

The backlash is coming in a few different ways, which I would classify into three categories.

Outright anger: It has been perceived in some circles that the middle-aged white male has become an “endangered species”. So, every attempt to even the playing field is met by loud and aggressive opposition (usually by a vocal minority), including claims of reverse discrimination. Perhaps some may feel that they are losing grip on their power and privilege, where you think there should be room for people at the top with the recent and significant growth in Victoria.

Passive fear: Perhaps more and more men are supporting backlash passively, because they remain silent on the topic. Their backlash takes the form of avoidance or zero acknowledgement, meaning that they worry about saying the wrong thing and therefore tend not to engage or are uncomfortable in how to enter the conversation.

Concerns about being labelled: Men are uncomfortable when labelled or called out for being sexist, or ‘mansplaining, man-peating, gender-washing, and hijacking the gender agenda’. And some are uncomfortable for all men when this happens, so they then apologize on behalf of all men or accuse the person (usually women) of labelling all men as bad.

It seems that backlash is an intense form of resistance. Do you have examples of resistance to your work as a D&I practitioner?

When I first started working in gender equity, the resistance usually started from a reluctance by the organisation to establish an evidence base, for example, conducting a pay equity analysis, or looking at issues related to under-representation of women in leadership. I once conducted a pay equity analyses for an organization, but seeing how bad the results were, I was sworn to secrecy and the figures later fudged.

In another instance, I was involved in setting up a leadership program for women. A year after the program started, it was a spectacular success that it abysmally failed. The backlash came immediately and in stealth from some of the executive men, who now realized that this group of capable women might gain a seat at the leadership table. They worked swiftly to mothball and derail the program.

However, in the last decade, the intensity of effort in gender equity work has increased, our narrative matured and our collective consciousness lifted, so we have a better understanding of why we are doing the work and why the progress has been glacial for some time.

What are the reasons for the resistance to equality objectives?

There are a few reasons in my mind as to why backlash happens.

One major reason is many people don’t understand what the evidence is saying and so they tend to be dismissive of D&I initiatives. There may be a lack of a basic understanding of the key evidence, that shows under-representation, under-utilisation and discrimination (or a softer term, unconscious bias) that permeate society, and goes way back in time.

The “Stupid Curve” coined by former US Deloitte boss Mike Cook, demonstrates that Australian companies are still wasting a significant amount of the internal talent. Whilst, the percentage of women graduating from universities has been over 55% for the past 15 years (Alan Olsen), organisations still select nearly ~70% of their leaders (90% in 2008) from only 50% of the workforce (the male half). As a result, the other 50% (the female half) of the workforce is overlooked and underutilised.

There is a low consciousness of workplace gender issues. I once worked for an organisation that had an executive team of eight men and one woman, and an overall pay gap 20%. However, culture survey results showed that 95% of their employees (including the women) thought that their immediate supervisor genuinely supported equality between men and women. I couldn’t see how this result was even celebrated? I wondered if people had become used to the homogeneity and no longer saw anything wrong with it.

Our social conditioning (including the influence of social media) may contribute to how we perceive women in leadership, culture, power or authority, in an Australian context. The lack of diversity in politics, mainstream media, TV shows and commercials, helps to normalise stereotypes. And when women try to break through those stereotypes, they experience resistance.

Don’t make it personal. We have recently seen the emergence of powerful men advocating for change for gender equality, but in establishing their stake in the game, there appears to be a narrative that may need further refining, so that the message of why they are invested in gender equity is more than a personal issue, for example, having daughters that want a different or better future, or qualifying their interest by a narrative which doesn’t go deep enough. DeVries, suggests that organizational gender scholarship by male and female executives is critical to understanding the gendered nature of championing.

This knowledge can also impact the prioritising of gender equity in organisations (the gender agenda). For example, strategies that look at adopting gender neutral language and tackling sexism are important but need to be coupled with deeper structural and systemic issues, so that men don’t cherry pick issues in isolation to backlash against.

The other reason is that the conversation around targets and quotas, and positions designed for women-only, is perceived by some as too interventionist and a type of reverse discrimination. It has probably divided men and women alike. What they fail to understand is that targets and quotas are usually a last resort and introduced after years of gently nudging people towards equality outcomes or throwing everything and the kitchen sink into their strategies. I don’t’ recall an organisation going out of business because of gender targets or quotas at executive or Board level. The reason why targets and quotas are not well understood, is that people have usually leapt into a conversation about targets, without understanding what has come before the contemplation of targets.

Organisations that have good leadership, critical mass and back the work usually can reach gender parity in leadership without targets, by creating an equitable and genuinely inclusive work environment.

Gender equity is also about getting men into feminised industries. Demographer Bernard Salt analysed the top 100 jobs performed by men and women, as recorded in the census of 2011 and 2016. Not much had changed. The greatest positive shift was the increase in female train drivers. The top male professions for both the 2011 and 2015 census were: carpenters, plumbers, electricians, builders. For women, it was teachers, childcare, health and aged care.

Another reason is that men in the middle of the organisation are being left out of the gender equity conversation. With the emergence of men at the top of organisations now championing gender equity initiatives, there has been an absence of men in the middle of the organisation doing the same. A recent gender equity expert has suggested that a coalition of male CEOs and men and women in the middle of the organisation may help get more men engaged in gender equity.

Virginia Haussegger’s (Australian) research showed that 46% of men believe that gender equality strategies do not take men into account and that 42% of men and boys are increasingly excluded from measures to improve gender equality.

The last reason for the backlash is the lack of men in developing and driving D&I efforts may unconsciously exclude strategies to engage men and achieve gender equity, for example, parental leave provisions and encouraging men to work in traditionally feminized industries.

It’s been interesting to recently see women advocating for men, especially when it comes to new fathers. Does the messaging and imagery used to showcase recent articles on fathers fully explore the complexities of fatherhood. I have seen a lot of a good-looking bearded fathers holding their baby up in the air lately. My challenges have become more complex, and my needs for a supportive workplace, essential, as I’ve become sandwiched in the sandwich generation.

Men come in all shapes and sizes. Single fathers, step-fathers, foster fathers, fathers in a same sex relationship, men with multiple diversity dimensions, etc. Men who do not see themselves accurately represented in these situations, may feel excluded or misrepresented. And a further exclusion may also occur when we don’t consider LGBTIQ in the gender equity conversation too.

And finally, few men work in HR departments and D&I, where most gender equity work occurs. If we don’t have more men doing D&I work, then gender equity may still be perceived as a women’s issue.

How can organizations approach D&I differently to bring everyone on the journey?

Organizations need to see D&I/equity proficiency and practice as a key management attribute. I think there may be general lack of ‘gender scholarship’ or proficiency in workplaces. Does the layperson need some basic proficiency in the science/evidence of gender inequity? Just enough to know what is going on? I look at my partner’s superannuation statements after 20 years of working, compare these to mine, and they tell me enough.

With a quick search on the internet, I can find current gender equity data showing the under-representation and under-utilisation of women in Australian workplaces, in the Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s August 2018 Gender Workplace Statistics at a Glance report.
For organisations reporting to WGEA,

· Women hold 13.7% of chair positions and 24.9% of directorships and represent 16.5% of CEOs and 29.7% of key management personnel.
· Nearly three-quarters (71%) of reporting organisations have a male-only team of key management personnel, and
· 28.2% of directors in the ASX 200 are women

Having transparent organisational gender equity data would help to fast track the conversation in gender equity, giving a clear narrative and rationale to doing the work. Looking through your organisation’s cultural survey responses to see if gender is even mentioned, or whether issues around backlash exist, is also helpful.

Economic security and empowerment have recently become a focus in many organisations, including addressing issues in relation to superannuation, qualifying periods for parental leave, removal of parental leave labels, centralised maternity leave funds, child care availability and affordability, under-employment and over-representation in casual employment.

With Australia’s population boom, there is an increased pool of emerging talent coming to Australia. With this growth you would expect to see more room at the top (leadership) in some professions, for example, the finance, service, health, education, transport, hospitality and even building industries. Gender equity strategies may need to become more sophisticated and consider gender and race together, or gender and other diversity dimensions.

Finally, the lack of male engagement and self-initiation over the long course of D&I work leads me to believe that structured spaces are not created for the critical conversations about gender equity in workplaces and to invite men at all organisational levels to be part of gender equity conversations. These may need to be written into gender equity action plans, and I believe some have already.

Where to from here?
Male backlash is not a new phenomenon. And my initial apprehension to speak about it in public domain, makes me wonder if I should have given this issue any oxygen? Can I see those pitch forks and fire sticks over the horizon? They are probably there somewhere. Have I brought more men on board? Have I taken a stand against backlash? Has speaking about it prepared me to have a conversation with other men about backlash? I think it has.


Roman Ruzbacky

EEON President

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